Every once in a while, I read articles about artists who don’t make their own work. The most recent one was published last month on BBC website: ‘Hockney takes a swipe at Hirst technique’. Hockney, 74, has a poster advertising his new exhibition (David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, opened at the Royal Academy in January) which reads: “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally“. Asked in a Radio Times interview if he was having a dig at Hirst, Hockney said: “It’s a little insulting to craftsmen, skilful craftsmen.”
According to this article, Hirst has previously defended using assistants to complete his paintings. He employs up to 100 people in a “factory” that works as a production line for his spot paintings and completes the painstaking work on installations like his diamond-studded skulls. Speaking to Time Out in 2006, Hirst likened himself to an architect running a practice, rather than a traditional artist. “I sit in a chair and watch, while they do the work,” he said. At least he is honest, many others hide that practice and never mention their ‘assistants’.
But then, a few days later, another article was posted: ‘David Hockney denies criticising Damien Hirst’. The Royal Academy of Arts, which is staging a major Hockney exhibition, has issued a statement on his behalf. The artist “has not made any comments which imply criticism of another artist’s working practices“, it said. Marr wrote that Hockney was “critical of artists with no craft, who delegate the making“. I looks like Hockney ran away from his previous comment but he just said out loud what many are thinking of today’s art (market).
I know painters, sculptors employing assistants has been common practice for centuries. An artist who doesn’t create his art himself is called an ‘art director’. Some of them make millions of dollars from this ‘art’ made by the numbers by their so called assistants. This kind of art attracts rich collectors and you can earn a lot of money establishing your own ‘niche’ in the art market. There is a huge difference between assistants only making copies of your work and assistants from whom you need the skills and knowledge.
I will speak as the artist I am: when I design wood furnitures for example, I need a carpenter to make them. When I create clothes, I don’t weave the fabrics myself (but I sew). Logical one would say. This is what the article by Marina Galperina posted on Flavorwire is about: ‘For Faith Moves Mountains (2002), performance artist Alÿs moved a mountain — that is, shoveled a giant sand dune in Peru a few inches over, with the help of 500 volunteers. Obviously, the feat could not have been performed by just one guy with a shovel.’
Then comes Murakami, an artist I appreciate a lot (I will post about his recent exhibition at the Galerie Perrotin in Paris) actively supervises, but does not paint the paintings, sculpt the sculptures, or stuff the plush toys. He sketches on paper, colors in Adobe Illustrator, and then his staff turns the finished work into exhibition pieces, silk-screening outlines and painting it up. Without technology — or assistants — Murakami has said, “I could have never produced this many works this efficiently, and the work wouldn’t be as intense.”
Of course you need assistants when it is about a (live) performance; of course you need assistants when you have to create hundreds of (similar?) pieces. But as an artist, and knowing so many who hardly manage to make ends meet, using assistants to create your work while you just check the end product, is not how I define creating Art and being an Artist. This is even more shocking when you realize some of these ‘artists’ earn a lot of money from their ‘art’ meanwhile most of artists can’t (or barely) make a living out of their work…
Life can be unfair and selective, especially when it concerns art and the artistic field, but it is still very disturbing. Hopefully, the Internet helps artists reach millions viewers and offers them the opportunity to connect with art collectors. But since I have an open mind, maybe what we call ‘art’ today is the new/old ‘art’. Maybe we are all ‘artists’ in some way. Then everything would be possible and acceptable. Pablo Picasso once said: ‘Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth’. If he’s right, making your own work or not doesn’t matter, after all.